United States District Court Grants Partial Summary Judgment on Product Liability Claims to Shipbuilder on Basis that the Ship is the “Product,” Not the Component Parts

The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington recently granted partial summary judgment on product liability claims to a company who built and supplied vessels to the United States Navy, on the basis that a shipbuilder’s product is the “ship” and not the component parts which have contained asbestos.

In Hassebrock V. Air & Liquid Systems, Corp., 2015 U.S. Dist. Lexis 13775, Plaintiffs sued numerous defendants alleging that Plaintiff Glenn Hassebrock was exposed to asbestos manufactured, sold or distributed by numerous defendants while working at various shipyards, and specifically, as an inspector for United States Navy ships that were originally constructed at defendant Lockheed Shipbuilding’s premises.  Plaintiffs alleged that the shipbuilder was strictly liable in its capacity as a product seller of asbestos containing materials.

In granting partial summary judgment for the shipbuilder, the District Court relied on Mack v. General Electric Company, et. al., 896 F. Supp. 2d, 333 (E.D. Pa. 2012), a 2012 United States District Court ruling in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in which the court found that a shipbuilders “product” is the ship itself, because a shipbuilder places a vessel, rather than its component parts, into the stream of commerce. The Mack Court cited a United States Supreme Court decision in E. River S.S. Corp v. Transamerica Delaval, 476 U.S. 858 (U.S. 1986), which ruled that the policy underlying strict liability is to place the burden on preventing the harm on the party best able to prevent the harm, and concluded that the manufacturers of the various component products aboard a ship containing asbestos are the best parties to prevent the harm.

In addition, the Hassebrock Court also relied on a Mississippi State Supreme Court case, Scordino v. Hopeman Bros., 662 So. 2d 640 (Miss. 1995), in which the Court found that a contractor/subcontractor is not a seller within the scope of Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and therefore, is not liable for any component parts it may supply in compliance with the performance of a job or service.

Based on the holdings in Mack and Scordino, the Washington District Court ruled that the undisputed facts showed that the shipbuilder was not in the chain of manufacturing and selling asbestos-related products; rather, it was providing a service of producing Navy Vessels and that the “product” was the vessel, not the component parts. In addition, the manufacturers of the asbestos containing component parts were in a better position to prevent the harm associated with the asbestos containing products.

While the ruling in Hassebrock relates specifically to product liability claims against shipbuilders, the arguments and analysis may be persuasive in cases where manufacturers or distributors  of products which, in part, may include some asbestos containing component parts, have been sued under strict liability/products liability claims.



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